A few days ago, my Google + page lit up with links to an article a very respectable writer named Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker on parenting called “Spoiled Rotten.” I read the article on my laptop, as I sat home with my 3 children on a hot summer day. And even I got caught up in the story of little Yanira, of the Matsignenka Tribe in Peru, helping with the chores, fishing for crabs and preparing food for the others. I thought about the skill sets that my two older children possessed at 6 in comparison. Compared to Yanira, they are big slackers. And it’s my fault.
I know I wasn’t the only parent in my socio-economic class or geographic location to judge myself and my choices. The parents in my social circle were also reading this article. And internalizing the judgement: that American parents are raising a generation of spoiled kids. On July 3, I can envision all the new chore charts that hit the walls. I can almost hear the intense discussions between partners on how to escalate our children’s skills and responsibilities. My own husband emailed me that we need to get our 3 kids in line. We need to measure up!
It was a solid piece of journalism. Kolbert is a good writer. Even so, this article is all bark and little bite. The writer (and, by extension, her sources) employs opinions and stereotypes and generalizations on what so-called American children are and how little they do.
Sierra Black, on Strollerderby has this to say about the article:
“Not only does the author of this article engage in weird primitivism about the “other” people whose parenting is just naturally better than “ours,” she sweeps the vast diversity of American cultures under the rug into one monolithic, affluent, mostly white, educated, helicopter-parenting approach. In her imagining of America, every child in the country is being raised in a parody of Park Slope, cruising around in a designer stroller and being tutored for Harvard while still in preschool, but never learning to tie their own shoes.”
My biggest problem with the article Kolbert writes is in the use of the words “American children” and “American parents.” One of the psychologists Kolbert uses compared the parenting used among the Matsignenka tribe with the parenting evidenced by 32 middle-income families in Los Angeles. And the truth spinning begins here.
Comparing little Yanira’s impressive skill set to the 8-year-old Los Angeles boy who couldn’t tie his shoelaces made for an anthropological comparison that anyone would find shocking. “Juxtaposition of these developmental stories begs for an account of responsibility in childhood,” wrote Carolina Izquierdo and Elinor Ochs in Ethos, the journal of the Society of Psychological Anthropology. To which I say, well, yeah. Duh. Of course. Let’s account. By all means!
But first let’s do some of our own unfair, biased, cultural comparison now. First of all, unless the zombie apocalypse begins in California, do LA 6-8 year old kids really need to know how to use a sharp knife or a machete? I mean, sure it would be useful if Jenny could cut her own cheddar cheese for her snack. But… necessary for survival? I bet Jenny can open the refrigerator and find the Go-gurt tubes. And to turn it around, can a 6-8 year-old of the Matsignenka tribe navigate a website and use a mouse so that she can write a report on the Blue Morpho Butterfly? Can she read a 1st or 2nd grade book? Can he navigate to the Angry Birds game on my Android phone? There are astonishing differences in the skill set of these children when you compare them side by side. Naturally. I’m no social anthropologist, but isn’t it ridiculous to not only compare what a 6 or 8 year old needs to know in order to survive between two such startlingly different cultures, but also to use this comparison on a story of “spoiled kids” to deride an entire nation’s parenting choices? What do spoiled kids of the Matsignenka tribe look like? Or does “spoiling” not exist in those OTHER cultures? Are all the parents of the tribe as perfect as the French so obviously are?
But sure, compare these two vastly different cultures. Drive home the point that, in conclusion, American parents are failing their children because they’re not teaching them the skills needed for survival. Even though “survival” parameters differ hugely between the Amazon and the LA suburbs. But the article will do well. Because, to be quite honest, this is a hot topic that we parents will read. New parents, old parents, critics-of-parents, parents-to-be — We will buy the magazine. We will link to the articles on our electronic readers. For some reason, we love reading articles and books that blatantly tap into that seething pungent stream of alarmist parenting criticism. We love blogging and talking and criticizing on the newest study that proves how our parenting fails in comparison to $some other country/culture’s parenting– i.e. works like Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom and Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé.
And, you know, I have to digress for just a moment here. I’m not a statistician either, but–not even considering the socio-economic or cultural differences between LA and the Matsignenka Tribe, let’s just look at numbers. Let’s compare a Peruvian Amazon tribe of 12,000 people and the way they parent to Los Angeles’s “tribe” of 37 million people. And extrapolate to talk about how “Americans” parent — that population of over 300 million people. Please take a memo. There is no “American parenting.” Thjis phrase shouldn’t even be used. You might be able to do a Matsignenka Tribe vs the people of $small town in $pick a state in the US for a more fair and equitable comparison, but even that is ridiculous because it’s impossible to separate the context.
Comparing tribe parenting values to “American parenting” values is like comparing apples to oranges thusly: picture a huge warehouse used to store fruit. Over in one corner of the warehouse are crates of apples. They represent American children. On the other side of the warehouse is one crate of Imperial Mandarin Oranges. They are standing in for the children of the Matsignenka Tribe in Peru. On the apple side, there are crates of Macintosh apples. Braeburn. Granny Smith. Red Delicious. Fuji. Roma. Gala. Cortland. Pink lady. Golden delicious. Honey Crisp. Jonathon. There are probably around 7,000 kinds of apples, and each kind has its own crate. Picture each crate. And on the opposite corner sits one crate of delicious, ripe Imperial Mandarin Oranges. Can you picture it? Now. Let’s compare both sides of this warehouse and have a constructive conversation about the differences in how apples and Imperial Mandarin Oranges are grown. We’ll call our report on this “spoiled fruit,” and perhaps those apple growers will finally glean how to avoid black rot and powdery mildew so they’ll have a healthy crop of… oranges. Oh, wait.
Or, ya know, maybe we’ll remember that in journalism, comparing apples to oranges never really makes a convincing argument.
In conclusion, Ms. Kolbert, I’m an American parent. I’m not in a Los Angeles middle-class family. But I’m in a left-leaning, middle-class, 2-parent family with higher-learning, raising 3 kids on a single income in a high-rent town in the Northeast. My older kids (8 and 10) can search Wikipedia to learn about their world, write postcards to their friends on the other coast, use a computer, iPad, and a smart phone, ride a bike/scooter to and from the Boys & Girls Club, run their own lemonade stand, and read books for hours on end. They DO like video games and probably watch far too many movies, but they also can make their own sandwiches, can cut up fruit and cheese with sharp knives, and can follow recipes for grilled cheeses, apple crisp, and edible play-doh. They could read, use a computer, make their own sandwiches, do puzzles, bring their dishes to the sink, and sweep the floor when they were 6; but tying their shoes–that great rubric your psychologists and social anthropologists worry so much over–was a bit challenging. So we bought shoes with velcro straps because, I suppose, we are enablers. And I’m proud of my kids and of my parenting choices.
WE are just a tiny fraction of the sub-set of American families. And we may over-parent in your sources’ opinions because we immediately pick up our crying babies. But we have hope that we’re doing the right thing. Because it feels right. We hope our kids grow up smart, strong, and safe, and that they make their own way in the world when they are ready and find whatever “success” looks like to them. I think ALL parents want the same for their children. And THAT is what makes us parents all alike, from every tribe, village, town and city all over this amazing and diverse world.
-a mother, parenting in America